By Patrick Brigham
Where does an author’s story begin? In my case, I was simply at the cross roads.
I felt the need to reassess my life and to understand what had gone before. It was painful but rewarding and it was also emotional, but more than that, it took me on a journey through a life lived, although one that was not very well documented. Sure, there had been plenty of girls and parties, fast cars and days of unfettered hedonism, but for some reason this had become banal, repetitive and frankly, quite boring. Now it was time to remember.
As the amateur sleuth in me went from one clue to the next, I somehow ended up as a very young child, lying in a pram in the back yard of my family home in England. Tommy the cat was also there asleep at my feet. All around me the skies were clear and I could even hear a gentle breeze blowing through the trees. In the distance there was the sound of muffled voices and occasional laughter. It was coming from the old stone flagged farmhouse kitchen, where my mother and the local Woman’s Institute were busy as usual bottling their garden produce, something which was quite unavailable in England at the time. Then the phone rang.
It was now forty years on and where was I? And, what had happened to me, during the interim period between then and now? That particular moment was so revealing that I stood for a moment with tears in my eyes, because - gazing out of my apartment window onto the streets of London – I had for once remembered something important about myself. I had rediscovered one small life that had once lingered in the shadows of the Second World War and had almost been forgotten. Suddenly I was staring into the past like a shadowy ghost, watching a long forgotten event that still indelibly lingered in my middle aged DNA.
As the moment passed I realized that it was high time to consign some of these rather fading memories to paper, but was this to be for no other reason than to account for a life already spent? And in doing what? Well, observing for a start. At least I could now remember with some clarity, and as the habit of remembering overtook me, long forgotten faces started to appear from nowhere.
With body language and mannerisms intact, before I knew it my computer screen was covered in these characters. As they became animated, they all started to say different things at me, and whilst interrupting one another - vying to be noticed of course – they tried to convince me that they had always been right about, well, everything! I think it was then that I realized that I could write and when it became crystal clear, that I had the ability to consign my thoughts to paper, but only as long as I could continue to remember.
But write about what? I had long been a fan of authors such as John Le Carre and Robert Ludlum, Ruth Rendell, Colin Dexter and of course Thomas Kenealy, not to forget my early reading with Saul Bellow and J. D. Salenger. So the question was not if I could write, but which genre to write in. I was not very romantic as a person – not a cold fish or selfish – but considering my rather disreputable lifestyle to date; I could hardly be a writer of romantic fiction.
One of my interests at the time was watching the disintegration of Communism, and even before The Fall of the Berlin Wall, it was clear to me that the Soviet Union was collapsing. Perestroika in the time of Gorbachev seemed to me to be the beginning of the end of The Cold War and it was clear to me, that the hard men of Eastern Europe were not only on the way out, but also planning their immanent escape.
During the course of my travels I had met many of the First Lieutenants of Communism, and often found them charming and to be as Conservative as any British Government Minister or indeed an American Congressman. It was what was inside their heads which interested me and what motivated them, despite their civilized behavior. The Serbians say that if you scratch the face of a Russian, you will find an Asian underneath and so very early on I realized that however they might present themselves to me, I would always be The Infidel to them. This was because most western men or women represented the end of a beautiful era of enforced mediocrity and political make believe.
My first attempts at writing murder mystery turned many of these often benign figures into monsters and made them say absurd things, which was the usual humorous drivel one had come to expect from the dialog of James Bond and that particular genre of fiction. I think it true to say that most western people hadn’t a clue about Communism although in Europe we were closer to the reality than most. Americans, who had been subjected to the insanity of McCarthyism, seemed to us Europeans to be quite innocent men and women who were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t comply, with the infantile stereotypes which many believed in at the time. My view has always has been the same, which is that only psychopaths make good spies. This is because they think that they are far cleverer than they really are, and some may also say that the title Intelligence Officer is often a contradiction in terms.
As the years passed I came to the conclusion that writing good murder mystery needed a strong political thread. Many of us are tired of ranting and raving TV police officers sitting in bars with their sergeant, going on about their rotten marriages, although in reality that happens. But I do try to put that in the background and to present thoughtful police officers, who think with their head, not with their mouth, are in control of their immediate environment and understand the world as it really is.
Finally, remembering is often a lonely place to be, because with it comes the bad as well as the good. When we have got over the trauma of recounting our own lives, authors can weave the webs which capture our reader’s attention in exploring a good murder mystery - which after all is a writer’s prerogative - but it may also be our curse.